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Robert Indiana on ‘Indiana’ 

Bob Indiana sits shivering in his museum home on the remote island of Vinalhaven, Maine.

"The pipes are frozen, the artist is frozen, everything is frozen," the 85-year-old Indiana-native tells me over the phone.

Thirty-six years ago, Indiana, contemporary artist best known for his "Love"sculpture, removed himself from the New York art scene and set up shop in an old Odd Fellows Lodge on Vinalhaven -- a move that took him even farther from his Hoosier roots.

The enigmatic man, who much prefers to refer to himself an "American painter of signs" than a "pop artist" (although most art historians would lump him into that group), has popularized a cluster of one-syllable words over the last half century. Words like "Eat," "Hug," "Die," "Air" and "Love" have appeared numerous times and in numerous fashions on signage and sculptures across the country. But curiously, "Indiana," the four-syllable word the artist most closely attached to himself, is the one he seems most ambiguous about.

Robert Indiana standing before “The Demuth American Dream #5,” New York, 1963. Among its symbolism are the world's four elements according to Indiana: existence, love, survival and sin, represented as "DIE," "HUG," "EAT" and "ERR." © 2010 William John Kennedy, kiwiartsgroup.com - WILLIAM JOHN KENNEDY
  • William John Kennedy
  • Robert Indiana standing before “The Demuth American Dream #5,” New York, 1963. Among its symbolism are the world's four elements according to Indiana: existence, love, survival and sin, represented as "DIE," "HUG," "EAT" and "ERR." © 2010 William John Kennedy, kiwiartsgroup.com

Robert Indiana's first last name is unknown to most people. Adopted shortly after his birth in New Castle, Ind., in 1928, he was adopted by Earl and Carmen Clark and brought to Indianapolis for his childhood. As a Clark, the artist came to discover all that he considered most truly "Hoosier" -- sincerity, simplicity, hard work, even coldness. His father was a distant man, but his mother was a warm figure, an affectionate presence in the young boy's life. Albeit somewhat flighty, her wanderlust was responsible for the 21 houses Indiana called home before the age of 17. Indiana's boyhood homes are scattered across neighborhoods like Irvington, Lawrence and Cumberland.

"I have a fascination with my hometown," Indiana tells me. "I'm intrigued to have lived in so many houses. [When I visit], I drive around the city and check out my old homes. Half of them have disappeared."

While living in Irvington, a neighborhood on the city's eastside with a history that not only crossed paths with the artist but with the likes of notorious bank robber John Dillinger, Indiana attended a Christian Science church where he noticed a small inscription that read "God is Love." Years later, Indiana would take that idea, reverse it, and create art and a personal religion around the idea that "Love is God." Simplified, it became his best known piece: the "Love" sculpture.

click to enlarge Robert Indiana's "LOVE, 1967." The "Love" image was originally used for a Museum of Modern Art holiday card in 1964. © 2014 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York - ROBERT INDIANA
  • Robert Indiana
  • Robert Indiana's "LOVE, 1967." The "Love" image was originally used for a Museum of Modern Art holiday card in 1964. © 2014 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

"Love was a centerpiece of my life," Indiana explains. "I was very much a loved child by my adopted parents. It never got away from me."

It was also during these early years that Indiana developed an intrigue in sculpture and architecture. The State Soldiers and Sailors Monument was the first sculpture the artist said he ever saw, although he once referred to downtown Indy's limestone centerpiece as a "spectacularly ugly war memorial."

In 1946, Indiana graduated as salutatorian from Arsenal Tech, the city's oldest high school. A photographer and photo editor of the school's yearbook, the young man already had his sights set on a career in art. It was at this juncture -- 12 years before he changed his name from "Clark" to "Indiana" -- that the artist decided to part ways with his home state. Although he received an award to attend the John Herron Art Institute, he chose to enlist in the army and later enroll in the Art Institute of Chicago under the G.I. Bill.

In 1958, after Indiana had settled in New York and was starting his ascent as a contemporary artist, he made the decision to change his name.

"There were too many Clarks," he explains simply. "I wanted a more distinctive name. The one that came to mind was Indiana, because of Tennessee Williams." (American playwright Tennessee Williams chose his nom de plume for his family's state of origin.)

Ironically, Robert never returned to his Indiana, despite the fact that his art continued to teem with Hoosier themes.

"What I didn't know is how autobiographical all of his work is," said Martin Krause, curator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and longtime friend of Indiana. "You wouldn't know that just by looking at it. You just see graphic design and brilliant colors and these words that seem to shout at you. All of that is a sort of key to memories of his growing up in Indiana."

Some of his most famous word art -- "Eat" and "Die" -- all go back to Carmen, who said the word "eat" right before she passed away. The word "Hug" Indiana also associated with his mother.

"'Hug' was the word my mother used in place of anything else relating to emotion. That's how she expressed herself," he explains.

Robert Indiana's "EAT/DIE," reflects the artist's mother's death. © 2014 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York - ROBERT INDIANA
  • Robert Indiana
  • Robert Indiana's "EAT/DIE," reflects the artist's mother's death. © 2014 Morgan Art Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Even the color scheme behind the 1966 version of "Love" was inspired by the colors of a blue Indiana sky and the red and green in the original Phillips 66 gas sign (the company his father worked for).

Why Indiana has never permanently returned to his home state is still a mystery. Perhaps his truest connection to the state -- his mother -- began to weaken with her death. Perhaps he feels like the state never gave him the credit he thought he was due as an artist. He isn't exactly transparent on the topic. Indiana says he has no plans to attend the upcoming exhibit of his work at the IMA. Poor health may have more to do with that than to an aversion to a trip back to the Midwest. And Indiana says he might ultimately retire in Hoosier soil. He's considering the possibility of someday being buried in Crown Hill Cemetery, right across the road from the IMA.

But right now, the artist is trying to stay warm off the Maine coast while he finishes up his autobiography. Perhaps then we'll better understand Indiana's relationship with Indiana.

Perhaps not.

___________________

The Essential Robert Indiana, the IMA's first major exhibition of the artist's original prints, will open Feb. 16. To learn more or purchase tickets, visit the IMA website.

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Zoe S. Erler

Zoe S. Erler

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Zoe S. Erler is a freelance writer and editor based in Indianapolis, Ind. An Aussie by birth, she has spent her adult life writing about interesting people and redemptive movements around the world. Over the past eight years, she has written for Prison Fellowship Ministries, The Washington Times, World Magazine,... more

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